‘Always Ready’: Handywomen and Childbirth in Irish History

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. This weeks post on the assistance during birth of handywomen in Ireland comes to us from Cara Delay, Interim Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston.

On duty in the west of Ireland, one of Lady Dudley’s nurses reported her experiences with a maternity case in 1910. She wrote:

Had just gone to another case when this patient sent for me. Then they went for [the] handy woman, who is a great scold. Doctor also had to be sent for, and he would not have me go whilst this woman was there. Afterwards I was called. The house is an old stable. There is no bed in the house, just a table, one chair and one stool; they are very poor. Patient was lying in the corner in a frightful condition. I got assistance and had her removed and made her comfortable.[1]

Revealing the practical difficulties involved in early twentieth-century Irish nursing—rural travel and poverty among them—this report also points to the tensions that developed between nurse-midwives, doctors, and traditional ‘handywomen’ during a time of transforming health care ideals and realities.

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